Protecting Teens from Abusive Romantic Relationships

As moms (and dads too!), we often feel a special need to protect our teenage and college-aged children from abusive relationships, and for good reason.  As of 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that Teen Dating Violence (TDV) is increasingly common.

How Big is the Problem?

Epidemic. In fact, 1 in 9 female teens, and 1 in 13 male teens, reported having experienced physical dating violence in 2017. 1 in 7 female teens and 1 in 19 male teens reported experiencing sexual dating violence in the last year. 23% of women and 14% of men experienced intimate partner violence for the first time before age 18.

What is Teen Dating Violence?

Teen Dating Violence is defined as intimate partner violence occurring between two people in a close relationship and may include any of the following:

  • Physical Violence - when a person hurts or tries to hurt a partner by hitting, kicking, or other physical force.
  • Sexual Violence – forcing or attempting to force a partner to take part in a sex act (may include sexting) without consent.
  • Stalking – a pattern of repeated, unwanted attention and contact by a partner that causes fear or concern for one's own safety or the safety of someone close to the victim.
  • Psychological Aggression – the use of verbal and non-verbal communication with the intent to harm another person mentally and/or exert control over another person.

Just as with bullying, victims of TDV can struggle with the impacts for years. Common long-term consequences may include depression, anxiety, alcohol and drug abuse, alcoholism, eating disorders, promiscuity, thoughts of suicide, and violent behavior. In addition, teen victims of dating violence are at much higher risk of being victims in college.

HOW and WHY is This Happening?

Sadly, young people take their cues from peers, adults, media, movies, and even video games.  Without engaged, positive role models to constantly guide and discipline them, they assume that the violence they see and hear is normal, or acceptable.  There are certain risk factors that contribute to violence, and teens who have experienced, or exhibit, the following should be given special attention and corrective support:

  • They believe that violence is normal or acceptable
  • Are depressed, anxious, or have experienced trauma
  • Display aggression
  • Use drugs or other illegal substances
  • Engage in early sexual activity and have multiple sexual partners
  • Have a friend engaging in Teen Dating Violence
  • Have conflicts with a partner
  • They witness or experience violence at home

The American Psychological Association (www.apa.org) has studied the issues of teen dating violence at length and has published a document ("Love Doesn't Have to Hurt Teens") that every family of young and adolescent children can reference for help.

Why Parents are Often the Last to Know

According to the APA, there are a lot of reasons why parents are the last to know that their child is being abused in a relationship.  They may think that being a boyfriend or girlfriend brings status or introduces them to new peers and events.  Or they may not enjoy being alone and think that any relationship is better than none.  Or tragically, they are afraid their parents will get angry, disappointed, embarrassed, or prevent them from seeing ANYone.  And kids that are LGBTQ may even fear that their parents will find out their status before they are ready to come out.  In short, only 1/3 of the teens who were involved in an abusive relationship confided in someone about the violence.  And keep in mind that it can indeed happen to YOUR child – even the strongest, smartest, most aware teens can get caught up in the romance when it is someone "popular" or when they grow up in a single parent household where they haven't seen a great deal of partner interaction to know what is "normal." They may be explaining their own doubts away assuming someone would say something if it was not "okay" or in hopes that things will magically change. If you suspect that your child is involved in an abusive relationship, talk in a non-threatening way with their close friends to see what they might share about the relationship or  interactions they've witnessed.

How Can I Help?

No matter the reasons for staying silent, stopping violence in teen relationships is everyone's responsibility. Boyfriends, girlfriends, friends, parents, adults — all have the obligation, and responsibility, to speak out against violent and hurtful behavior and to prevent it from occurring.

If you suspect a teen is being abused, there are some things you can say to encourage them and get them the help they need:

  • Know that hurting someone is NEVER a sign of love.  Respect = Love
  • Assault is a crime. Call the police if you have been threatened or harmed.
  • Take care of yourself. You are worth it, and worthy of respect.
  • Be sure you are safe. Think through a plan of action for the next time you feel uncomfortable…keep a friend or family member with you if you have to see your abuser.
  • Get support. Talk to a friend, teacher, counselor, coach, or anyone who will support you in standing up for yourself. If the first person you try doesn't work, try another.  Don't give up!
  • Demand respect. Tell the person what they are doing is wrong, that it must stop, and they must get help.  Don't be vulnerable to their stories or sadness.  The grim fact is that most people can't or won't change, even if they really love you. You can't change people and you need to come first, especially when your safety is at risk.
  • Find help. A partner who is hurting you already doesn't respect you in the way you deserve.  Asking for help is NOT a sign of weakness, it's a sign of wisdom and intelligence. Abuse is serious, and you can, and will, do better. If you need help finding a qualified psychologist, the APA has helpful tips and a directory.

Other Places to Find Information and Help

Many of these organizations were also sources of information for this article. They can likely help you and your teen navigate a bad relationship situation as well.

If this article was helpful to you, please check out the others we've prepared to help bring awareness to the terrible problem of Bullying (October is National Bullying Prevention Month):